54. Transforming Ivory Towers to Ebony Towers

Author: Prof. Adekeye Adebajo
6 August 2018
Business Day (South Africa)

An inter-disciplinary conference on Transforming the Humanities Curriculum will be held at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on the weekend of 18 and 19 August 2018. Organised by the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation, the meeting seeks to draw lessons from five African countries – Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ghana – as well as the establishment of African-American Studies in the United States (US), in an effort to contribute to scholarship and policies on transforming South Africa’s curriculum in the field of humanities. South Africa’s education system still mirrors colonial education paradigms and the hegemony of Western thought, with African knowledge systems and indigenous voices often marginalized. This conference thus explicitly seeks to draw on transformation lessons from post-colonial Africa and post-civil rights America.

These transformation efforts are not a call to delink Africa from the rest of the world, but rather to view the world from an African perspective. The conference celebrates the achievements of the 2015 “Rhodes Must Fall” and similar movements on curriculum transformation at South African universities, and represents an inter-generational Pan-African dialogue. Post-apartheid South Africa has often looked to the West for its models, thus explaining the persistence of Eurocentric curricula. Deeply entrenched, patronizing political and cultural attitudes have permeated the country’s historically white universities such as the University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch, Wits, and Pretoria, even as enrolment and funding have declined in historically black universities such as Fort Hare, Limpopo, and Venda.

Most African countries had universities created by European colonial powers only from about 1948. These countries thereafter embarked on the Africanization of these institutions from the 1950s, replacing both foreign staff and Eurocentric curricula. There were efforts to build African nationalist historiographies to support nation-building and to challenge Eurocentric history in Nigeria (Ibadan), Senegal (Dakar), Tanzania (Dar es Salaam), Kenya (Nairobi), Uganda (Makerere), and Ghana (Legon).  In the process, these universities created some centres of excellence of African knowledge production such as the Ibadan School of History; the Dakar School of Culture; and the Dar es Salaam School of Political Economy. Scholars at the University of Nairobi also led the transformation of curricula throughout East Africa.

In 1958, Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart in reaction to what he perceived to be the misrepresentation of Africa by Western authors such as Joyce Cary and Joseph Conrad. This eventually resulted in the birth of modern African literature under the Heinemann African writers’ series which began in 1962. Heinemann produced 273 books which essentially became Africa’s literary canon, with writers such as Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Tayeb Salih, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Ousmane Sembene. This was the first generation of modern African writers who transformed literature curricula across the continent. Exclusive Books has recently created a Pan-African writers’ series section with many of these and other writings in all of its stores, highlighting the potential to transform South Africa’s literature curriculum and reading culture.

Finally, the UJ conference will interrogate what lessons South African universities can learn from efforts to create African-American Studies departments in the US. As in South Africa with the end of apartheid in 1994, it was after the civil rights struggles from the 1950s that black American students entered predominantly white institutions in large numbers. This led to demands for Black Studies courses by the first generation of African-American students alienated by white institutions with Eurocentric curricula that often did not recognise black history and culture. Black feminist scholars like Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Bell Hooks, also forced the establishment of Black Women’s Studies by the late 1970s.

Lessons from transforming curricula at America’s historically black colleges such as Howard, Morehouse, and Lincoln could further help transform humanities curricula in South Africa’s historically-black universities. Two major African-American schools of thought to be assessed at the UJ conference are the Atlanta School of Sociology (led from the 1890s by scholars such as Richard Wright and W.E.B. Du Bois) which sought to use rigorous research methods to disprove the racist claims of white social scientists; and the Howard School of International Affairs (led from the 1920s by scholars such as Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, and Eric Williams) which challenged conventional Western ideas about empire and race in international relations.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation.